This post is written by guest author, Allison Hunter-Frederick, from Lincoln Pet Culture.
Twice as many cats as dogs never see the vet. One reason for this statistic is that vet visits are stressful to both cats and their owners. According to the American Animal Hospital Association, 60% of owners say their cat hates the vet, while 38% hate the experience of taking their cat to the vet.
Cat owners can change those stats by helping their cats become comfortable with vet visits. To do this, we need to train them to view potentially scary things associated with vet visits as pleasant. Two of those scary things include carriers and car rides. Other scary things include scales, pills, syringes, and injections, and the ways in which vets might handle our cats during a health check.
TRAINING TECHNIQUES TO EASE VET VISITS
To train our cats to embrace these potentially scary experiences, we can draw upon two science-based principles: desensitization and counterconditioning.
What is desensitization?
Desensitization is about slowly exposing our cats to situations that may make them react negatively, but in a controlled environment where we can prove that the situations are not as scary as they seem. It’s about slowly defusing that negative association so that we can decrease our cat’s emotional response to a stimulus with slow and repeated exposure. The technique helps our cats feel less fearful about new situations.
What is counterconditioning?
Counterconditioning is about shifting our cat’s experience with situations that they perceive as fearful and instead have them be experienced as positive. By pairing a negative stimulus with a positive stimulus, we can change our cat’s emotional state. The counterconditioning technique helps change our cat’s emotional response to new situations.
Desensitization is about shifting how they feel going into a new situation and counterconditioning is about shifting their emotional response once they are in a new situation. Together, they can ease both your’s and your cat’s experience at the vet.
How to desensitize your cat with a vet visit in mind
The principle of desensitization can be used to prepare our cats for various vet handling experiences that we may or may not have use for at home. Case in point, a baby scale, which can be used to weigh cats.
To help my cats become less fearful of a baby scale, I began by placing it in the room with them so that they’d get used to seeing it. After a few days, I also started placing a few treats relatively close to the scale, as a way of encouraging them to check it out and become more comfortable being near it. Each day, as long as they were calm around the scale, I placed treats closer and closer to it. (If they showed signs of anxiety, I took a step back and placed treats in the last spot where they’d felt calm.)
Eventually, I reached the place where I could place treats on the scale itself. By this point, my cats no longer viewed the scale as a potential threat and would willingly step onto it. For my most timid cat, I spent another week placing treats in various locations on the scale, until I could get her to step onto it with all four paws.
The principle of desensitization can be used for other vet handling practices too:
- Pills: Place the pill gun where your cat will see it. Once your cat is used to the pill gun, place treats next to the pill gun. After a few days of your cat approaching the pill gun, follow-up by touching the pill gun to her mouth to desensitize her to how it feels. Give her treats while doing this. Next feed her tuna out of a pill gun. Finally, administer a pill using the pill gun. You might add some tuna juice to the pill.
- Syringe: Place the syringe where your cat will see it. Once your cat is used to the syringe, place treats next to it. After a few days of your cat approaching the syringe, follow-up by touching the syringe to his mouth to desensitize him to how it feels. Then cut the top of the syringe and feed him tuna from it. Finally, add and administer the pill.
- Injections: Begin by gently grasping your cat’s skin while you feed her a treat, so she gets used to having her skin handled. Right before your cat finishes the treat, release your grip. After a few seconds, grasp the skin again and give her another treat. This time, your grasp will be a little less gentle, to mimic how a vet gives injections. Finally, feed your cat some tuna on a plate while poking your cat with a safe object that resembles a needle. The goal is to have your cat always focus on food while being handled.
How to use counterconditioning to help your cat with vet visits
Sometimes desensitization isn’t enough and then you’ll need to draw on counter-conditioning too. Case in point, the carrier. Imagine that the only time you ever receive a phone call is when you get bad news. You’d soon start to dread the ring of a phone! In a similar way, if the only time we use a carrier with our cats is to take them to the vet, they’ll soon learn to associate their carrier with a negative experience. Eventually, they’ll begin to flee the room at the sight of the carrier. At this point, it won’t be enough to simply get our cats used to being transported in a carrier. We’ll also have to teach our cats that the carrier means something good.
To help my foster kittens become less fearful of a carrier, I began by placing a carrier in the room with them so that they’d get used to seeing it. I also put familiar blankets and toys in the carrier to help them view it as a safe space. After a few days, I began placing their food relatively close to the carrier, to further encourage a positive association. Each day, as long as they were calm with the carrier in the room, I placed their food closer and closer to the carrier until eventually I could feed them in their carrier. (If they showed signs of anxiety, I took a step back, and placed treats in the last spot where they had felt calm.) Soon enough, I started finding them resting in the carrier.
My task wasn’t done at this point, however. I still had to help my fosters view carrier travel as a positive experience. As with the whole desensitization process, I took baby steps.
Taking baby steps with desensitization
First, I simply closed the carrier door and then immediately opened it, so that my fosters knew they weren’t imprisoned in the carrier. I also gave them treats. Each time I closed and opened the door, I increased the time it was shut, until I knew they were okay with being confined to the carrier.
Next, I simply lifted the carrier (with door shut) off the floor and then immediately put it back down, so that my fosters knew being moved didn’t always mean a vet trip. I also gave them treats.
Third, I carried my fosters in the carrier to different parts of their room and then different parts of the house. And, of course, I gave them treats for staying calm. In this way, they were learning what behavior I expected.
Fourth, I brought them in the carrier to the car. The first time, we didn’t leave the driveway. The next time, I just drove us around the block. Eventually, during one of our trips, I took them to the vet. It took several baby steps, but we got there.
Keep up the work
In order to keep vet visits from becoming stressful again, you need to continue to practice these skills. I weigh my cats every month, and so the scale is now just a regular part of their lives. I occasionally take our cats for car rides to places other than the vet, and so they continue to welcome car rides.
With these skills you can help your cats become comfortable with vet visits. That means regular checkups will be easier, and we know regular checkups increase the chance of your cats living long, healthy lives. Plus, you will help change the stats so that perhaps one day the majority of cats annually visit the vet.
About the Author: Allison Hunter-Frederick is a cat behavior coach, cat therapy handler, and pet education blogger. Her articles have been published in local and national publications, as well as on her blog, Lincoln Pet Culture. Through her business, Allison Helps Cats LLC, she uses her research-based, positive reinforcement coaching approach to help cat owners improve their relationships with their cats.